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Archive for November, 2009
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I’m late, late, incredibly late on four books that authors gave me to review. That doesn’t mean that I can’t give credit where credit’s due … in plenty of time for the book-buying frenzy before the holidays. With luck, I’ll finish off the full reviews in December but since *I’m* buying copies of these books for friends and family, maybe one or more of them might fit someone on your list. All recommended for the categories of people headlined.
Economists, Physicists, History of Science buffs
Newton and the Counterfeiter describes Isaac Newton’s multi-year battle with one of London’s most successful counterfeiters. No surprise who wins in the end, but it is surprising how well Levenson provides background on the protagonists … without overwhelming the reader. Recommended for students or professionals with an interest in the history of money, finance, or just a fascination with what the great Newton did after he polished off the Principia. The counterfeiter’s “colourful” life precludes giving this book to a pre-teen but all others will find it, like the earlier-reviewed The Ghost Map, a fascinating snapshot of life in London.
Japanophiles, Asian culture fans, World History Buffs
I’m years late on this one but Through the Looking Glass is highly recommended for anyone wondering how Japan ended up with such a different culture … and why their adoption of Western technology at a breakneck pace in the late 19th century was so successful. Thought-provoking and such a good summary of Japanese culture that I’ve struggled for over 50 hours to epitomize in writing what the author has written in hopes of getting a full book review out the door. I’ve failed, but I’ve also bought more than a half-dozen copies of this book for friends on two continents with an interest in Asian culture.
Entrepreneurs, Fortune 500 cube jockeys, Economics students, Anglosphere buffs
Free: The Future of a Radical Price by Wired Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson picks up where his Long Tail finished. The halving of computation, bandwidth, and data storage costs each year has made a new generation of businesses financially feasible. The freemium service (like Flickr, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.) where basic services are free and a small set of customers pay for additional features, has become so common that it is now unremarkable. Anderson looks at the history of the word, the different definitions of free in the context of culture and business, and the gap in the academic literature in understanding the new generation of businesses that leverage “free” in profound ways. My book review will, like my earlier review of Long Tail, look at why the Anglosphere has been the source of so much “free” over the last couple of centuries and why it leads the way in both charitable and profitable businesses that leverage the idea. A “must have” for anyone thinking of starting a business. People under 30 will think “d’uh” but Anderson still offers a lot of context and some very good background on the history of “free” in business in the 20th century for younger readers. And a fun, even revolutionary, read. I’m buying copies for nieces and friends with an interest in media.
Ambitious NCOs, Military Officers, World History buffs, Prognosticators of the American future
Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present is a grand summary of the culture of the steppes, from the time of the domestication of the horse and the appearance of lactose-tolerant humans (see 10,000 Year Explosion), to the 21st century suppression of the Chechens, Tibetans, and Uighurs. A fascinating source book on the ebb and flow of culture across the “ocean of grass” and the firm focus these cultures had on trading with the great empires on their periphery. Trade with us … or die. Most of these cultures, and the direct influence they had on world history, has been largely unknown except to a handful of scholars. In Empires, the author brings all this background information together in one place, draws on the most modern scholarship in linguistics, history, and archaeology, and provides a ground-breaking introduction to the general public. The striking parallels with the European nations that built empires based on liquid oceans becomes clear only by the end of the book … as is the tentative nature of Russia and China’s hold on the vast interior steppe (triggered by the introduction of firearms, and only solidified in the final massacres of the Junghars by Qing China in the mid-18th century). Anyone with an interest in Russia, the Middle East, or China will learn a great deal about the role of the Central Asian Culture complex on these areas in the last 4,000 years. Nowadays, military folk posted to the ‘Stans or places like Mongolia will find this book invaluable … firstly as a brisk introduction to the cultural roots of the place, and secondly as a reference book to read and re-read in future years to grasp “the big picture.” If you have friends or family that are ambitious for learning about the continent (let alone the region), start them off at the beginning. Anyone senior to Captain should buy this book simply to have it ready when needed. Because it will be needed. You can’t understand the Chinese and Russians without understanding the “enemy” they faced for centuries and the echoes that continue in their territorial obsessions. Highly, highly recommended. My full review will comment on the author’s more personal assessments but his account of Central Asian history is a entirely straight-forward, well referenced, and real service to the English-speaking public. I’ve bought copies, again, for friends in Europe and North America.
Posted in Afghanistan/Pakistan, Anglosphere, Book Notes, China, Civil Society, Economics & Finance, Entrepreneurship, History, India, Iran, Islam, Japan, Korea, Management, Media, Military Affairs, Russia, Society, Tech | 6 Comments »
In a week of depressing news items and blog posts, one of the most depressing was this.
A British writer surveyed members of Britain’s WWII generation and asked: Given the way the country has turned out, do you think the sacrifices made in the war were worth it? The most common answer was “NO.”
Some of the reactions are probably the typical “things-were-much-better-when-I-was-younger-and-now–everything-is-going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket” common among older people in all times and places. A couple of them sound like narrow-mindedness and xenophobia. But most of the reactions sound very understandable given what I’ve read about the current social and political climate in the U.K.
A couple of questions:
1)Especially for Brits: Are things really this bad?
2)For everyone: To what extent are the factors that have been so destructive in the U.K. also operating in the United States?
In reading this post by Megan McArdle, it occurs to me that most people outside the sciences don’t understand what “peer review” actually is. They have a wildly exaggerated concept of how thorough and detailed the process is. My spouse pointed out that most lay people imagine that the experimenter presenting a paper for peer review is forced to cower before a bench of a half-dozen or more of his peers who then mercilessly grill the experimenter about every facet of his work.
In short, they imagine that peer review looks something like this:
…when in reality peer review looks like this:
By the way that proponents of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming (CAGW) wave it about as a talisman to ward off criticism, a lay person could be excused for thinking that peer review is a rigorous process that is central to the functioning of science and that verifies the conclusions of a scientist’s research.
Peer review is nothing like that.
Way back in May of 2008 I linked a very interesting video that was done by an attorney, at this post. Unfortunately the link is now dead.
In essence, the attorney was pleading with people to protect their fifth amendment rights by NOT speaking with the police after an incident unless you have your attorney present, ever. In the video there was a police officer who also said that you should never speak with the cops without an attorney present even if you are IN THE RIGHT.
The attorney said that even if you are in the right, things you tell the police can get twisted and turned around (intentionally, or not), and could incriminate you.
I was thinking of this as the Tiger Woods situation unfolded. I will never know what really happened outside of Mr. Woods’s house in those early morning hours last week. But as I was reading coverage on it I kept seeing that the police kept wanting to come to his house to ask him questions and they were denied. Florida law only states that in this type of investigation that Woods give his license, registration and proof in insurance and apparently that is all that he gave. Finally, Mr. Woods hired an attorney.
It is possible that Mr. Woods hired an attorney right after the incident and got good advice not to speak to the cops, but this episode is a great example of someone who clearly knew his rights and decided to exercise them. Any interview with the police would have hurt Mr. Woods, even though he might have done nothing wrong and just merely had an accident.
Update: Commenter Andrew has a link to the video here.
The real shocking revelation in the Climategate incident isn’t the emails that show influential scientists possibly engaging in the disruption of the scientific process and possibly even committing legal fraud. Those emails might be explained away.
No, the real shocking revelation lies in the computer code and data that were dumped along with the emails. Arguably, these are the most important computer programs in the world. These programs generate the data that is used to create the climate models which purport to show an inevitable catastrophic warming caused by human activity. It is on the basis of these programs that we are supposed to massively reengineer the entire planetary economy and technology base.
The dumped files revealed that those critical programs are complete and utter train wrecks.
It’s hard to explain to non-programmers just how bad the code is but I will try. Suppose the code was a motorcycle. Based on the repeated statements that Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming was “settled science” you would expect that the computer code that helped settle the science would look like this…
…when in reality it looks like this:
Yes, it’s that bad.
Programmers all over the world have begun wading through the code and they have been stunned by how bad it is. It’s quite clearly amateurish and nothing but an accumulation of seat-of-the-pants hacks and patches.
How did this happen?
Recent revelations that the peer review system in climatology might have been compromised by the biases of corrupt reviewers miss a much bigger problem.
Most climatology papers submitted for peer review rely on large, complex and custom-written computer programs to produce their findings. The code for these programs is never provided to peer reviewers and even if it was, the peer climatologists doing the reviewing lack the time, resources and expertise to verify that the software works as its creators claim.
Even if the peer reviewers in climatology are as honest and objective as humanly possible, they cannot honestly say that they have actually preformed a peer review to the standards of other fields like chemistry or physics which use well-understood scientific hardware. (Other fields that rely on heavily on custom-written software have the same problem.)
Too often these days when people want to use a scientific study to bolster a political position, they utter the phrase, “It was peer reviewed” like a magical spell to shut off any criticism of a paper’s findings.
It now seems clear that many climate scientists have shown a most unscientific lack of interest in following the data wherever that data may lead, coupled with an unwholesome eagerness to disregard and to disrespect the opinions of anyone outside of a closed circle of “experts.”
In comments on a NYT blog (excerpted at Instapundit), someone comments:
“It is possible that some areas of climate science has become sclerotic. It is possible that climate science has become too partisan, too centralized. The tribalism that some of the leaked emails display is something more usually associated with social organization within primitive cultures; it is not attractive when we find it at work inside science.”
This kind of tribalism is by no means limited to “primitive cultures,” rather, it is dismayingly common in societies of all types. The phenomenon was astutely analyzed by C S Lewis in his writing on what he called the Inner Ring.
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Posted by Lexington Green on 26th November 2009 (All posts by Lexington Green)
The Mayflower Compact:
In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God of Great Britain, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, etc. Having undertaken, for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the First Colony in the Northern Parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape Cod, the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France and Ireland the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini 1620.
We give you thanks almighty God for all the blessings you have given us. God bless all of our ChicagoBoyz contributors and their families, our readers and friends. God bless the many people who are travelling for this holiday, and grant that families will resolve their animosities and be at peace with each other. Thank God for the courage of the many people who came here over the centuries and gave us the strong, free and prosperous country we have so unworthily inherited, ruled by law and free association and cooperative effort, and not by the whim of the powerful. God grant that we may keep it well and leave it to our children and grandchildren even better than it was given to us. God bless our soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan and other dangerous places, and may He have mercy on the ones who have been killed and strength and hope to the wounded and their families.
God bless America.
President Obama was awarded an honorary black belt in Tae Kwon Do by the President of South Korea. It seems that Obama dabbled in that particular martial art for years, but never had the fortitude or discipline to actually advance beyond an intermediate rank.
There is a joke going around. Why didn’t the Nobel Committee give Obama the prize for literature, as well as peace?
Because he has already written two books.
I don’t remember the exact words but this was the essence of a headline in a Chilean leftist newspaper after an Allende referendum was defeated by the voters (as reported, IIRC, by Robert Moss in Chile’s Marxist Experiment).
The aroma of similar attitudes wafts from an AP report that has the headline, “Honduras vote to sideline president, enshrine coup”. Hey, nobody’s calling anybody reactionary here, but if you talk about a “coup” it’s usually an indication that you’re unsympathetic to the people who did it. Never mind that the president was kicked out by his own legislature and courts, following their country’s written constitution, after he flagrantly broke the law. Like global-warming hysterics, and lawyers for obviously guilty defendants, Zelaya’s supporters don’t have the facts on their side and so keep repeating unsupported assertions that are meant to shift the frame of debate in the direction of their narrative.
Meanwhile, the Brazilian government, sensing weakness, is trying to push Obama around. This is the same Brazilian government that just received the great democrat Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a widely publicized state visit. But Honduras, one of the poorest countries in Latin America, a democracy and a steadfast US ally, is a threat to world peace.
From one of my favorite Bloom County Strips:
Milo: “Senator? This is Milo Bloom at the Beacon. Will you confirm that you sunk Jimmy Hoffa in your backyard pond?”
Senator Bedfellow: “What? Of course not!”
Milo: “Find, I’ll go with ‘Sen. Bedfellow Denies That Pond Is Where He Sunk Hoffa.’ ”
Senator Bedfellow: “That’s not true!”
Milo: “Okay. ‘Bedfellow Did Sink Hoffa in Pond.’ ”
Senator Bedfellow: “I don’t know where Hoffa is!!”
Milo: ” ‘I Lost The Body’ Says Bedfellow.“
Happy Thanksgiving to all from this side of the Pond. We are having a Thanksgiving Teaparty by Lincoln’s statue in Parliament Square tomorrow afternoon. Any reader of this posting who will be in or near London is welcome. It will start at 4 and go on till 8 so there will be plenty of time to go on to other events though there will be food.
Stuart Buck encountered a teacher who said “Kids learn so much these days. Did you know that today a schoolchild learns more between the freshman and senior years of high school than our grandparents learned in their entire lives?” (“She said this as if she had read it in some authoritative source”, Stuart comments.)
She probably had read it in some supposedly-authoritative source, but it’s an idiotic statement nevertheless. What, precisely, is this wonderful knowledge that high-school seniors have today and which the 40-year-olds of 1840 or 1900 were lacking?
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In business, or anything else, you can go just as wrong by being too early to market as by being too late. A case in point:
I worked for a little known company in Cambridge, MA called BBN (Bolt, Beranek & Newman) that sold a program called “email” to GTE for a few bucks because no one ” got it” at the time.
From the comments in this post on Google’s Wave.
Posted by Ginny on 25th November 2009 (All posts by Ginny)
Anecdotal Evidence: Today, we were looking at Pico Iyer’s “In Praise of the Humble Comma“; I asked if Time still had essays like that. Of course, I didn’t know, though it was a magazine we read pretty thoroughly every week when I was a kid. No one in the class read it regularly and few even knew what it was like. I wasn’t surprised they didn’t subscribe, but their parents didn’t either. A few said they’d seen the magazine at their grandparents. I don’t think it’s bad that we have other, more varied, sources. We don’t have a shared community – but then, that that shared community was artificial and artificially restrained is becoming more obvious. In the old days, would Climategate be played up prominently? Still, I’m sorry we can’t share Time – can’t share certain experiences.
“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t, and can’t teach, create a fake ecological disaster so that they can get grant money.”
from the comments at this post at NeuralNetWriter
Breitbart’s Biggovernment.com scores again, interviewing homecare workers threatened by the SEIU in a union election in Fresno. Obviously there are labor law issues but SEIU’s former counsel and now NLRB member Craig Becker can probably keep the SEIU out of hot water on the labor front. But what about the postal front?
Multiple times on the linked video, the workers said that SEIU representatives took their mail, opened it, and intimidated them into voting SEIU, and then took their ballots. This stinks, but is it a crime? According to postal inspector Hillary Smith, who covers the Fresno area, it certainly sounds like one. Specifically, the crime would be mail theft, which carries a financial penalty of up to $250,000 and up to 5 years in prison.
Filing a complaint for mail theft can be done electronically here. Without complaints, mail theft cannot be investigated. The inspectors have seen the video. They just cannot proceed without a complainant. To date, they do not seem to have received one.
Posted today in Freeorder News
Sharyl Attkisson, CBS, investigates and reports the fraud of swine flu hype and hysteria. This kind of journalism is at the foundation of a free society. When you listen to, or read this, please remember that the President of the United States declared a National Emergency based on things that were not true. Sharyl, thank you. You are a real journalist, and I hope you will inspire others to pick up the old torch. And thank you Dr. Joseph Mercola for your interview with Attkisson and for posting it for our illumination.
One of the issues raised in my post Myths of the Knowledge Society, and in the discussion thereof, is the question of formal, theory-based knowledge versus tacit, experience-based knowledge. What is the appropriate scope of use of each of these modalities?
Continuing my retro-reading of old Forbes ASAP issues. In the October 1993 issue, Rich Karlgaard, arguing that book value is of declining importance in evaluating companies, says:
Human intelligence and intellectual resources are now any company’s most valuable assets.
(Note that word “now”…we’ll be coming back to it)
Rich quotes Walter Wriston:
Indeed, the new source of wealth is not material, it is information,knowledge applied to work to create value…A person with the skills to write a complex software program that can produce a billion dollars of revenue can walk past any customs officer in the world with nothing of ‘value’ to declare.
I think Rich Karlgaard (now publisher of Forbes) is a very smart and insightful guy. (His blog is here.) And Walter Wriston was one of the giants of banking, back when it was possible to use such a phrase without snickering. But in this case, I think they are seriously overestimating the newness of the importance of knowledge in the economy. And such overestimation has continued and increased in the years since 1993.
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Over the long term, electricity use has been closely correlated with the general growth in the economy. Due to the fact that building power stations, transmission lines and siting locations for distribution facilities has a long lead time (sometimes measured in decades), utilities have to plan ahead.
One of the major pillars of electricity demand is industry. Many facilities use large amounts of electricity, such as steel & aluminum, paper and pulp making, and manufacturing plants for autos. Some facilities use so much electricity that they build their own power plants, and / or locate their facilities near cheap power (which is why a lot of the aluminum industry and aircraft manufacturing is in the Northwest, where cheap hydro power was available).
This latest recession has caused industrial usage to plummet to an unprecedented degree. The article above was in the Wall Street Journal titled “Weak Power Demand Dims Outlook“. Per the article:
Electricity sales remained weak in the third quarter, prompting speculation that the sluggishness could persist even after the U.S. economy rebounds. Some utilities don’t expect power sales to recover to pre-recession levels until 2012 — if at all — because so many factories have closed.
Some of the major utilities, such as AEP out of the midwest and Southern Company in the Southeast are seeing demand reductions for industrial use in the 15-20% range. These types of reductions are out of the historical norm for a recession.
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Jonathan highlights an Instapundit discussion that caught my eye, too. The discussion is about mammograms and the latest proposed guidelines for screening: do the guidelines represent good science, or are they simply meant to save money (these are not mutually exclusive goals)? I don’t know the science, and don’t have any reason to distrust the health care professionals proposing the guidelines, but I understand that an element of distrust is introduced by the current health care debate.
Anyway, the above linked discussion brings up many interesting points. One is the Public-Health fallacy that Jonathan discusses. Another is the changing relationship between doctor and patient in a system where the federal government intrudes so heavily. Guidelines become suspect. Who is the real beneficiary of the guidelines – the individual patient, or the ‘greater good’ of the population as designated by a government official? The government guidelines, or official, become a third party between the patient and the doctor. The relationship is altered. To some extent, this is already the case with third-party payers and the current level of regulation, but the proposed health care bills take it to another level, entirely.
You see the same phenomenon of distrust when a patient talks about ‘greedy’ doctors and drug companies. I think that distrust will be transferred to Washington under the ‘D.C.-centric’ health-care bills that are being considered. And, in the political fight between constituent groups (patients and others), we may end up with a system where large public health bureaucracies will need to be placated first – a bit like California and the public service unions, or the British NHS*. The entire nature of the doctor-patient relationship will be changed. What do you all think? I’m a physician, and like many physicians, have my own levels of distrust. They are currently being directed at the government takeover of health care.
*I recently watched an old “Yes Minister” (Brit sitcom from the 80s) in which a government minister tries to shut down a hospital with no patients (it has a very large staff). A funny joke, yes? Well, the running joke of the show is that the unions resist by making the following claim – who cares if there are no patients? The greater good is served by all those public sector jobs. So, who “owns” the doctor-patient relationship in that sitcom scenario? Soon, alas, to be ours, perhaps?
Update: Think I used the word distrust enough in the above post? It’s like I’m trying to make a point, or something….
Another Update: Hey, a belated thanks for the link, Instapundit!